To end his highly successful first year in charge at Hampstead, Ed Hall rather oddly chooses this vanity project from journalist Sarah Helm, wife of Tony Blair's one-time chief of staff Jonathan Powell. Her first play, Loyalty is described as a "fictionalised memoir" which basically means the central couple's names are changed to Laura and Nick - the politicians' names are unchanged. Covering the "sexed-up" evidence about hidden WMDs in Iraq that led to war, Nick is privy to most of the PMs most private phone conversations, and Laura often listens in, making notes although she would never actually betray her partner and make any of it public. So we go from early calls in which Bush manipulates Blair into backing his military plans, right up to the exposure of the crucial informant "Daisy" as little more than a hoax. Of course, these notes are what lead up to Laura/Sarah writing this play so she does make the information public but this is hardly news any more - there's nothing exposed in the play that isn't publicly known or at the very least strongly suspected, nothing new here.
This wouldn't be a problem if it had resulted in a strong piece of drama - thousands of great works cover true stories whose endings we already know - but it doesn't. I suppose we're meant to engage with the human drama of how this all affects the couple but they're so obnoxious it's impossible to do so. I'd been looking forward to seeing Maxine Peake on stage and she's great, but even an actress as good as her can't make the insufferably smug Laura actually likeable. Helm's main concern seems to be to tell us how welcome she was at Number Ten, how much confidential information she was privy to (and as I say, very useful it is ten years later when everyone already knows it,) name-dropping little digs at Cherie and even secretly helping make decisions about cabinet reshuffles, as well as the more mundane bragging about her fabulous, constantly-redecorated home and what a great help her Polish au pair (Anna Loval) is. And if, as her 20/20 hindsight insists she did, she questioned the motivations of Blair and her husband (Lloyd Owen) so strongly, why does it affect their relationship so little? It's all in all a very cold, lifeless play, its only stabs at entertainment being easy laughs from Patrick Baladi's Blair impressions.
Loyalty by Sarah Helm is booking until the 13th of August at Hampstead Theatre.